Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Preface to Daniel De Leon by Stephen Coleman (1990)

The following is the preface by the author to his biography of Daniel De Leon, which was part of Manchester University Press' Lives of the Left series. 
Thanks go to La Bataille socialiste  blog for originally putting this on the net.
This biography is a study of uncompromised revolutionary hope and dismal political failure. The story of Daniel De Leon is not that of a populist leader or a radical legislator, but of a militant and unswerving Marxist and irrepressible socialist activist who could see what was wrong and what must be changed in the mean and sordid atmosphere of turn-of-the-century American capitalism. The wrongs which he exposed and the change which he sought concerned not only the nature of the capitalism itself, but also the ways in which that system tends to dominate and misdirect efforts to resist it. The wrongs were to outlive De Leon; the change has yet to come. Still people of reason argue with passion, and sometimes despair, about why socialist ideas have never taken root in the USA; why the American working class has been so successfully accommodated within the capitalist system; why the message of De Leon has been utterly unheeded. It is to be hoped that this biographical study of the pioneer of American Marxism will contribute to an explanation of the hopes and failures which characterised the early socialist tradition in the USA.

Writers of history have not been kind to Daniel De Leon. Apart from the generally uncritical hagiographical accounts of his life written by De Leonists in defence of their tradition, most historians have mentioned De Leon only in passing, usually disparagingly and often inaccurately. When I first came to study the history of socialist thought in the USA, I was surprised (and irritated) to discover that no serious scholarly work dealing exclusively with De Leon’s ideas has been published. It reminded me of the absence of serious scholarly works on the great English Marxist, William Morris, which had at one time been a feature of British socialist historiography. It was clear to me from the outset that De Leon was a figure of major intellectual importance in the history of American socialist thought, and it was just no good for his life and ideas to be left to the realm of superficial caricature. As I embarked upon a study of De Leon’s writings and speeches it became obvious that I was considering a substantial political theorist, an evaluation of whom should not be clouded by tedious psychological investigations or other long-obsolete sectarian squabbles. In the time that I have written this book I have come to conclude that most of the original attacks upon De Leon were motivated by the fact that he would not abandon his principles in order to court the kind of popularity socialist often attract when they stop being socialists. The secondary critics of De Leon have too often been inclined simply to regurgitate the prejudices of those who wrote before them without comprehending the political context of such prejudices. I must plead guilty to an absence of biographical interest in the deeper qualities or defects of De Leon’s personality, nor would I  expect others to evaluate the political ideas of a Marx, a Mill or a Morris on the basis of criteria which are best left to computer dating agencies. In so far as De Leon’s character influenced his effect as a political thinker and activist such matters are considered in the following pages. It is my hope that readers will be motivated by this account of De Leon’s life to turn next to his many very readable and easily available writings, in which are to be found some of the soundest and most straightforward Marxist thinking between the years 1890 and 1914. The account which follows is intended to clarify the context and meaning of such writings as well as to raise a number of criticisms which the openminded reader will want to consider.

I acknowledge with gratitude the contributions to the production of this book of several people. Melvin Harris, whose profound intellectual generosity has been an inspiration to me, allowed me free access to his unique collection of material by and on De Leon; furthermore, the discussions I had with him and the suggestions I received helped me immensely to understand some of the important themes examined in this book. Frank Girard entertained me while I was researching in the USA, offered me the benefit of his years of scholarly and committed reflection upon De Leon’s contribution to the socialist movement, and (together with Ben Perry, with whom he is writing what promises to be an excellent history of the Socialist Labor Party) gave me insights into the De Leonist tradition which I could not have obtained otherwise. Adam Buick has encouraged and, sometimes, directed my research, especially into De Leon’s conception of socialism. Clifford Slapper’s very useful comments on the text and consistently intelligent suggestions of ways to improve both the stylistic and political quality of this book are much appreciated. I have received useful information from Edmund Grant, Ronald A. Sims, John O’Neil, Louis Lazarus and a number of others in the USA who did not know me personally but who heard that I was writing about De Leon and were kind enough to send me literature by, or about, him. In expressing my sincere thanks to these people, I must make clear that I take responsibility for any errors of fact or fault of interpretation which may have found their way into the text. I would also like to thanks Sally McCann for her diligent and very helpful work in copy-editing this book. Above all, I dedicate this book to my father, who first taught me about the importance of history and the vision of socialism, which, when combined, can change the world; without his support over many years this book could never have been written.
Stephen Coleman

An American Marxist (1990)

Book Review from the May 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Daniel De Leon. By Stephen Coleman. Manchester University Press. £25.

The contribution to socialist thought of Daniel De Leon has been neglected over the years. Most labour historians have mentioned him only in passing, usually in scorn and often inaccurately. Stephen Coleman’s book, in Manchester University Press’s “Lives of the Left” series, rectifies the situation. But who was De Leon?

By 1886 Venezuelan-born Daniel De Leon was 34 and living in the Hispanic quarter of New York. An ordinary family man, his main concern was to achieve secure employment as a university law lecturer. However, he was soon to come into conflict with the status quo and leave university life for good. He immersed himself in the radical movements of his day, finally emerging as a Marxian socialist in 1890. He joined the American Socialist Labour Party (SLP) which he was to dominate, transform and remain in for the rest of his life. He stood for socialism and nothing but, and his distinct brand of Marxism and party organisation is still extant today.

De Leon’s major concern, states Coleman, was “to apply the orthodox position of Marx to the industrial conditions of his own time, and to simplify its reasoning and conclusions”. He goes so far as to include him in the tradition of popularising socialist ideas of William Morris and Robert Tressell and to write that it would be hard to name any other source of Marxian education in the USA. De Leonist bodies also emerged in Canada and Australia.

In Britain De Leon’s works were a major influence on the revolutionary minority which left the Social Democratic Federation in 1903-4. This minority formed the British Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Coleman quotes Jack Fitzgerald, a founder member of the SPGB, who thought the American SLP’s journal The People “the best socialist journal published in English”.

De Leon’s standards were rigorous, and Coleman makes it clear that he imposed them on the SLP. For a start, membership of the party was not automatic. Applicants had to demonstrate an understanding of SLP principles before joining. Neither were waverers tolerated for long. That unity was not to be had at any price is demonstrated by the party split of 1899, when a halving of the membership was regarded by the remaining members as a gain in the party’s strength. James Connolly was one of the more notable waverers to be ousted. Now more famed for his Irish nationalism than his socialism, he left the SLP fold with De Leon accusing him of introducing racial (national) and religious questions into party tactics and organisation.

De Leon’s influence was such that principles would not be exchanged for a “broad-church” numbers-game. It was this principled stand for socialism and nothing but that influenced those who found the Socialist Party of Great Britain. But this is as far as it goes. There is another aspect of De Leonism that Coleman could have more clearly distinguished from this political influence: socialist industrial unionism.

“Socialists tend to die frustrated or deluded: frustrated that human emancipation has not been achieved, or deluded that it has”. Such is the socialist’s lot according to Coleman. But perhaps De Leon’s life shows that frustration and delusion need not be mutually exclusive. There is no doubt that De Leon’s political life was a model of socialist commitment and principle. The frustrating fact was that workers continued to be, in Coleman’s words, “a recalcitrant force”, persistently denying ballot success to the SLP. And though Coleman emphasises that De Leon was never deluded into thinking that socialism had been achieved, it could be argued that he held illusions about how it could be achieved – illusions born of frustration.

By 1905 De Leon was rejecting the notion of a solely political transformation of society. He asserted the need for an economic wing to the socialist movement and put forward a three-stage theory of revolution: socialists winning the battle of ideas, victory at the ballot-box, and socialist industrial unions supplying the economic might to enforce electoral victory and workers’ power. He also ventured a view of future socialist society that would be an industrial unionist administration. To this end he was a major influence on the formation of two industrial unions: the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance and then the Industrial Workers of the World – both ultimately to fail.

Socialist unions were never to be the short-cut to a mass class-conscious movement that De Leon might have hoped for. How could they be when, unlike the political wing, an understanding of basic socialist principles was not a condition of membership? Coleman argues that De Leon was not wrong to condemn “pure and simple” trade unions. “His mistake was to attach too much importance to leadership, assuming that dishonest leaders imposed themselves on unwilling union memberships”. The fact is that these leaders had the support of the workers “and this would not be changed by retreat into socialist-run unions, but by hard and sustained persuasion of those who accepted the union status-quo”. In Britain industrial unionism was taken up with enthusiasm by the SLP and even by a short-lived minority in the early SPGB.

Coleman is quick to point out that De Leon’s post-revolutionary plan, to replace a political state that would “wither away” with a work-based industrial administration, had its unsolved problems. What about those who do not work? For example, the retired, disabled and those in full-time education. Neither, Coleman states, were De Leon’s views on socialism in one country nor his plans for a post-revolution labour-voucher system what one might expect from a consistent socialist. What about free access?

These were certainly lapses. But De Leon was a product of his times. Coleman claims that his industrial administration theory was borrowed from Edward Bellamy’s utopian work Looking Backward and of course even Marx came up with a labour-voucher scheme in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. In final mitigation, Coleman points out that De Leon was unable to spend time working out an entirely coherent conception of socialism because he was too busy recruiting socialists.

Although Coleman can hardly suppress a glowing respect for this giant amongst pioneer socialists, his is not an uncritical account of De Leon’s life and ideas. De Leon’s failings as a revolutionary socialist are openly and clearly brought out and, in many respects, account for the greater part of Coleman’s work.

Indeed this book, apart from its biographical content, should achieve the status of a handbook to the do’s and don’ts of socialist strategy. As well as being a well-researched scholarly work, it is accessible and eminently readable. It only remains to add that a cheaper, paper-back version will be published later.
John Dunn

Early days (1986)

Book Review from the April 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx in Manchester, Ruth and Edmund Frow (The Working Class Movement Library, Manchester £1.80p)

Today, no public library is complete without a number of books dealing with Marxism on its shelves. What is true of municipal libraries equally applies to the retail book trade and extends to university libraries.

It was against this background, and the centenary of Marx's death, that the Manchester Public Library Committee decided to organise an educational exhibition on the close relationship of Marx and Engels to the city of Manchester. Held at its Central Library, (which incidentally stands on the site of Peterloo) the exhibition was so sell attended that it was given an extended run. Arising directly from the event, the Working Class Movement Library decided to print R. & E. Frow's Marx in Manchester.

The booklet is more than a detailed account of Marx's many visits to Manchester. It deals fully with the important reasons for them, among which was the necessary and essential research for Capital and his need to pool knowledge and share experience with his many close friends and comrades in the town. These included his friend and collaborator Engels, who lived in Manchester for 20 years, Wilhelm Wolff ('Lupus"), the Manchester teacher to whom Volume One of Capital was dedicated, and Samuel Moore, who translated Capital. Given Marx's constant ill-health, his visits also provided an opportunity for medical treatment by Dr. Edward Gurnbert (the Physician in General) who was Marx and Engels' doctor and a close friend. Often Marx and his wife Jenny would stay ay the Gurnbert house.

On Engels' arrival in Manchester in December 1842—just after the conclusion of the Lancashire General Strike (referred to by the bourgeois historians as the "Plug Riots.")—the town had already undergone a huge industrial transformation. It had become the centre of a new factory system in which the mode of production had been completely changed by the use of steam and machinery. Its cotton products were famous throughout the world. Here was the first great factory town the world had ever known; the birthplace of large-scale capitalist production and the modern proletariat. The workers there had experience of the class struggle (the town was an important centre for the Chartist movement) and Robert Owen's teachings were well known (he had been employed in a Manchester mill). 16 August 1819 (Peterloo) was still well remembered by the workers.

The main source of information in Manchester for Marx was Chethams Library. He told his publishers later that the journey had been taken exclusively for research for this book on political economy. Engels wrote: "at that time Marx had never yet been in the reading room of the British Museum. Beside the libraries of Paris and Brussels, besides my books and extracts seen during a six weeks' journey in England we made in the summer of 1845, he only examined such books as were procurable in Manchester." Some of the material collected was put to good use by Marx in his Poverty of Philosophy. Also a large amount of the historical material contained in Capital was obtained from Chethams Library.

Marx was elected as an honorary delegate to the Chartist Labour Parliament held in Manchester in 1854. This conference was attended by delegates from all over the country, and Marx's message to them was a clear and concise summary of what was happening in the political arena. He urged that the proceedings should be aimed at organising the working class for the conquest of political power and the immediate taking over of the means of production.

In 1864, the First International was founded. It constituted one of the most memorable episodes in the history of socialism. The International had branches in Manchester and Salford, both of which has the support of the local Trade Council. Marx's key role in the IWMA meant that yet again he had direct links with the Manchester working-class movement. Incidentally, Engels regularly posted the Manchester Guardian to Marx, who closely followed the movements of the Cotton market, as a reading of Capital will show. 

The authors list the monies paid annually to Marx by Engels, during the latter's stay in Manchester. They also provide an exact and detailed account of Engels' income from the firm of Erman & Engels, in which his father was a junior partner, thus clearing away the considerable confusion on this issue.

This low-priced booklet is published by an organisation of workers, the profit motive plays no role in their decision to write and publish material on working class history. As a source of information on an aspect of Marx's life not usually dealt with, it deserves a place on every bookshelf.
Wally Preston